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Photos copyright © 1996-2007 by J F Grossen
She decided that a proper screen wasn’t necessary – the slides from her short trip to Mexico would be better understood if projected directly on the wall. After all, most of the pictures were of actual walls outside bodegas, car repair shops, cafes, and laundromats. What she had captured wasn't that remarkable. Her composition and lighting were not that skilled. But her delivery of that sparsely-attended presentation at Ohio University made me take notice. Never before had I encountered a person with such unabashed reverence for something as simple as the letterform.
I had many mentors in art and design appreciation, but this professor, Arlyn Eve Nathan (née Simon), was the impetus for an obsession that has now lasted over fifteen years of my life. She graduated from RISD and earned an MFA from Yale before making a short professional stop in Athens, Ohio – just in time for us to meet. Socially quiet, she erupted when prompted about her favorite font or asked about the history of the slab serif. She collected trays and trays of lead type. I think she was a face or two away from having the complete Bodoni family in hot metal – or was that Baskerville? She helped me see the beauty of typography, coaxing me to hand-draw the complete alphabet in ITC Elysium Bold over and over and over again (check out the tail on that Q) with a Rapidograph. I didn’t mind – other professors had us painfully memorize chapters from the Carter Day Meggs classic Typographic Design: Form and Communication. She thought that sort of exercise was frivolous. If you didn’t really love the letterform, then you might as well… well, be a painter or a shoe salesman.
The following year, I found myself with a daily commute from San Francisco to Palo Alto, where I had my first job at a small CD-ROM design and development shop. Each morning and evening I would ride Caltrain past the edges of sun-baked towns like San Bruno and Burlingame on the peninsula, only getting to know them as much as I could see from the train window. At the Hillsdale stop, not far from the station, I could see a mangy bar called Steamies with blacked-out windows and a massive neon sign that stuck proudly up from its sad exterior. For the first time since leaving the classroom, I took notice of type. Instead of ink on paper, it was glass on painted steel. I had discovered a new canvas for the letterform: the neon sign.
I obsessed about this sign at every passing of the train, and still do today, with its odd kidney-shaped outline and intermittently blinking bulbs. The 'I' in the word Steamies is substituted with a massive martini glass that protrudes well beyond the curves of the sign, pointing its olive-laden toothpick towards the heavens. I have dreams with this sign as a recurring character. I’ve illustrated it in notebooks, sketched plans to recreate it in fire at Burning Man, photographed it with Polaroids, captured it with film, and snapped a hundred shots of it with my digital. All this is to assuage my biggest fear, that someday soon I will return to this sleepy little burb to find my sign, and the dump of a bar that it sits upon, replaced by a Carl’s Junior. During my time in San Francisco, I traveled up and down the West Coast, noticing that cities like LA and San Diego were evolving, like most of the US, into homogeneous cattle pens of strip malls, blacktop, and automobiles – their unique architectural identities flattened and bleached beyond recognition. Along with the buildings being destroyed, so went the signage that adorned them. Back then, I marveled at the amazingly detailed signage for the liquor stores and motels that ran up and down La Cienega Blvd, La Brea Ave, and Sunset Blvd. On subsequent trips, they were gone, and I’ve always felt that a part of the city’s soul was lost with them.
This is true for every neon sign in every city I’ve seen since. I get a pang of impending regret in the pit of my stomach when I see a beautiful sign now, and feel obliged to capture each one before the great bulldozer of progress and prosperity pushes it out of sight forever. “I brake for neon” would be stickered on my bumper if I had a car, since I’ve been known to pull onto medians of highways to get the best view of a decaying roadside motel sign, stop rush-hour traffic to photograph a 7-UP sign in downtown Seattle, and endanger myself in construction sites in Times Square for just one last snapshot of a soon-to-be trashed Howard Johnson’s restaurant sign. I’ve made the pilgrimage to the YESCO site in Las Vegas called the Neon Boneyard, where a group of like-minded urban archaeologists are assembling the largest collection of defunct signage in the world. This obsession has transcended the borders of its de facto neon motherland, America (though really, France had history’s first neon sign), to emerge in every city and country my wife, Liz, and I have ever traveled. My camera seldom gets a rest.
The sign itself is a many-layered icon – a historical marker holding stories of the town or street on which it sits, a landmark from which mental maps are drawn, a blinking calling card on which a family’s business has written its legacy. My collection of these artifacts has not been limited to the two-dimensional world of photography. I keep a keen eye on my eBay watchlist and once drove a U-Haul 2,000 miles to the middle of nowhere to hoist a thousand-pound motel sign down off its pole (but that’s a whole other story).
Nothing elevates your appreciation for an art form more than attempting that craft first-hand.
I recently attended a two-day neon art-making workshop at the UrbanGlass studios in the heart of the “cultural district” in downtown Brooklyn. I had an ambitious plan to create an electrified assemblage of letterforms that I could proudly display on my apartment wall. I didn't get much further than the four foundational bends that all neon letters contain. It’ll take quite a turn over the heat of the ribbon flames to get to even one perfect letter… a little like the grind of the Rapidograph on paper.
It’s part preservationist effort, part typophile madness that drives my obsession with these signs. And it's really the letterforms that excite me and propel my effort to preserve and share their beauty with others. The way stark rays of sun hit the raised glass lettering, creating a shadow of equal intensity and beauty. The character of the weathered façade, the flakes of sun-bleached paint, the way each letter joins with the next to form one long string of light. Without that lecture fifteen years ago, without that first passionate introduction to the letterform, I might never have seen it.